Welcome to the inaugural post for Mother Art Mondays, my new (semi)weekly series! I've been asking readers to send me mother art since this blog's early days, but only one of you has heeded my call thus far--the wonderful Alessandra Barucchieri.
I've also collected some great subjects for the series on my own, and to kick-start a return to writing regularly here, I decided to flesh out this interest of mine. 'Mother art' is my own term--I haven't seen it used much elsewhere--and I'm referring to all kinds of art (fine art, film, poetry, design, etc. etc.) made by mothers and/or about motherhood.
I am not interested in 90% of the results produced by searching 'mother art' on Pinterest. I don't want the saccharine loving gazes, though I'll make exceptions if I feel the art has value for other reasons. I want punk-rock mother art. Unconventional, complicated, raw, perspective-changing, unexpected. Find some and send it to me! I would love to write about it. Or, please, write a guest post and link to your own blog if you're so inclined.
To kick off this series on the eve of Christmas Eve, I am pleased to share this gorgeous nursing Madonna by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the Madonna del Latte ("Madonna of the Milk"), on display until January 31, 2014 in the crypt of Siena Cathedral. This groundbreaking painting is normally held in a museum of the Oratory of San Bernardino in Siena that's closed during the winter, so the rector of the cathedral, Mario Lorenzoni, decided to arrange this special Christmas exhibit.
The iconography of the Virgo Lactans dates back to the 13th century, when it became especially popular in Tuscany. Artists started responding earlier here than elsewhere to the more human-centered religious movements sweeping the peninsula, and while Florence doesn't like to talk about it, Siena was totally at the vanguard of the revolution. It started with the subject matter, as artists began exploring the human side of biblical figures. Then in the early trecento they started portraying those figures more realistically.
When Ambrogio (brother of the equally famous Pietro) painted this Madonna in 1325, he broke away from the prevailing Byzantine tradition to show the Virgin gazing at her baby rather than staring straight ahead. As Michael Mallory put it in "A Lost Madonna Del Latte by Ambrogio Lorenzetti" (Art Bulletin, Vol. 51, N.1, March 1969):
The Virgin, who looks down tenderly at her actively nursing Son, becomes in this painting the embodiment of motherhood, both human and divine, while the Child, kicking and squirming, asserts the human aspect of the dual nature of Christ. This portrayal, Ambrogio's only extant version of the theme, is precocious in spirit even for a progressive school of painting, and anticipates artistic currents of the following century and beyond...
I love the Ambrogesque attention to incidental details: the curled-open lips of the baby's nursing mouth, the sturdy cupping of the mother's hands and the awkward kick of the chubby baby foot. Any mother lucky enough to have breastfed her child will feel heart pinches of recognition. Images like this by Ambrogio and his contemporaries are literally the place where images of mothers looking longingly at their babies began.
Of course, this painting was also meant to glorify Mary's sublimity and humility--ideals that remain the subjugating standards of Italian motherhood. So while art like this will stay in the canon, let's also promote a contemporary artistic revolution in the portrayal of mothers and celebrate the radical Ambrogio Lorenzetti's of today.